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The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has suspended in-person visits between prisoners and guests again for the third time in two years in response to a COVID-19 surge.
Louisiana’s prison population has been barred from meeting with their families, loved ones and attorneys for most of the pandemic. Since March 2020, visitation – with extra restrictions – has only been allowed about a third of the time.
The state completely halted in-person prison visitation from March 2020 to March 2021, the entire first year of the pandemic. In-person visits resumed, with new restrictions, for a little over four months, from mid-March to late July 2021, before shutting back down again over COVID-19 concerns.
Louisiana reopened prison visitation for a second time in October of 2021, with the state’s largest prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary, allowing guests as of Oct. 30. Thursday’s shutdown ends this period after a little over two months.
It’s not clear whether the recent shutdown applies to attorneys visits, as it has in the past.
Corrections officials said it is necessary to shut down prisons to protect incarcerated people and prison staff from contracting COVID-19, which can spread quickly in correctional facilities.
While in-person visitation is suspended, the prison system is allowing each incarcerated person two 10-minute phone calls weekly at no charge. Typically, incarcerated people have to pay 21 cents per minute for those calls. There’s also video visitation services which families can use, which, as of last year, had a cost $9.95 per 30-minute session.
Advocates for incarcerated people have said the lack of visits have been difficult and bad for morale inside the prisons. In addition to prohibiting family and friends from visiting, the ban affects volunteers who help run classes and other programming. The state shut down prisons visits from volunteers last week, before family visits were suspended.
Being cut off from seeing family in person – as well as the potential shutdown of clubs and other activities – can put incarcerated people on edge, said Bruce Reilly, with Voices Of The Experienced (VOTE), an advocacy organization for people formerly incarcerated. It raises the tension in a prison and could potentially create a dangerous situation, Reilly said.
Incarcerated people in Louisiana’s eight prisons have a vaccination rate of 83%, though about half of the state’s prison population – 12,800 out of 30,300 – is housed in local jails run by parish sheriffs. The vaccination rate among locally housed state inmates is not known. It’s not even clear to what extent they have been offered the vaccine.
Local jail visitation policies also might vary from state prison rules.
Incentives were offered to encourage incarcerated people at state prisons to get vaccinated. They were offered a small amount of money to do so, and both incarcerated people and their visitors were required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for “contact visits,” where hugs and touching are allowed. If an incarcerated person or their visitor was not vaccinated, they were not allowed to touch each other during visits under previous rules.
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